SC/ST Act Dilution: Was it a case of judicial overreach?

Several legal experts believe the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court to be a clear case of judicial overreach

NH photo
NH photo

Zaheeb Ajmal

Several legal experts believe the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court to be a clear case of judicial overreach. Lawyer and activist Arun Prakash (38) in this interview with National herald explains why.

Q. The Supreme Court bench has denied that guidelines framed by it under the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act did not dilute the Act. Would you agree?

A. The directions are a clear case of judicial overreach. The guidelines are bound to make the law ineffective. It was designed to protect the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes from the hate crimes they have been subjected to, for centuries. It is also worth remembering that this special law was enacted due to the inefficacy of the legislation enacted in 1955 known as the Protection of Civil Right Act. Most of the cases of atrocity on scheduled castes and tribes actually go unreported and their exploitation is widespread. The NCRB data show that there has been a 66 per cent increase in crime against members of SC/ST. Crime against dalit women has also gone up sharply.

Q. What made the Dalits react so vehemently to the Supreme Court judgment?

A. The dilution has huge ramifications. Among upper caste people, who generally commit much of the crime against Dalits, the fear of arrest will disappear. They will be emboldened to commit more atrocities. The guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court will make the registration of FIR and arrests far more difficult. What upset dalit activists even more were observations made by Justice Goel in favour of accused persons and his references to the Gujarat high court judgments. In Gujarat, the rate of conviction under this Act is six times lower at 3.4 per cent than the national average of 28.4 per cent.

Q. In what ways have the guidelines weakened the law?

A. The direction for permission or sanction for prosecution in writing has made the Act toothless. This has also provided added protection to the offenders in my view. Talking about safeguards of the accused in criminal jurisprudence is good but ignoring the interests of poor and helpless victims outrightly in a prejudiced, caste-ridden society will not yield desirable results.

Q. But the NCRB data are said to reflect as many as 8,900 false cases filed under the Act in 2016…

A. It is wrong to say that there has been an increase in false cases registered under the Act. In fact, if you examine the NCRB data, you see a decline in false cases between 2009 and 2015. As a matter of fact, NCRB data show that charge sheets were filed in 78 per cent cases registered under the Act, which implies that they could not have been false cases. Charge sheets are after all filed by the police and only after completing the investigation. On the other hand, the rate of conviction is extremely low at 28.4 per cent in case of SCs and 37.9 per cent in case of STs. This is mainly due to framing of deliberately weak charge sheets, witnesses turning hostile due to threats and coercion, poor investigation by the police, pressure from panchayats and influential persons to withdraw the cases and sometimes also because of the biased and prejudiced attitude of the courts in countryside.

Q. If dilution is not a solution, then what is?

A. My suggestion is that instead of filing a review petition against the guidelines, as it has done, the government should nullify them by legislative measures, making stricter provisions to deal with the perpetrators. Flogging of four Dalit youth in Una (Gujarat) by cow vigilantes in July 2016, setting on fire 58 houses of Dalits by Thakurs in Saharanpur (UP), brutal killing of a 21-year-old boy by Rajputs for riding a horse and ‘showing off’ in Bhavnagar (Gujarat), attack on the bride and groom in UP for planning a wedding procession, etc. are glaring offences which need stern action. Action should speak louder than words and unless the Government and the judiciary together ensure swift justice in these cases, faith in the judiciary is bound to be eroded.

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